There was the inevitable Chinese restaurant which charged 50 to 75 cents for a choice of egg drop or wonton soup; a “combo” platter and a desert of an almond cookie with tea. And, there was the more ambitious, but still very affordable, Spanish restaurant, La Bilbaina, on West 14th Street which was at the heart of the now extinct “Little Spain” neighborhood. La Bilbaina had bullfighting posters, exciting flamenco music on its sound track and candles on its tables. A scene to stir tender emotions. Dinner consisted of a large bowl of spicy bean and kale soup followed by an oversize platter of yellow rice, lots of red beans and hot chorizo. In fact, much of the La Bilbania menu consisted of beans in various forms and lots of garlic. The beverage was a rough and ready sangria. To call the wine plonk would be dignifying it, but it quenched the thirst. Dessert was flan. Total cost of dinner a deux (with tip) hovered around $3.50.
HG and BSK were active opponents of the Vietnam War, participants in every type of political action, demonstration and peace march. HG thought the “Domino Theory” was a hoax and that the trend in the Far East was toward Capitalism and not Communism. HG decried the waste of American (and Vietnamese) lives and the disruption and polarization of American society.
At the time HG made these predictions: North Vietnam would win and unify the country (The Vietminh, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were fighting in and for their country and were perfectly capable of continuing the conflict for decades). Vietnam would become a tourist destination. The United States would get a lot of splendid Vietnamese restaurants.
A very prescient HG. Political sage HG doesn’t know the eventual outcome of the current middle east turmoil but can safely predict the US will gain lots of restaurants featuring tasty kebabs and other delicacies of the region.
Zero Mostel portrait on last post spurred HG thoughts about that comic genius/egomaniac/monster. He got his unusual name when he made his debut at the Cafe Society night club in Greenwich Village. He had no background. No reputation. Therefore, he was dubbed “Zero.” Of course, he was a sensation and his career took off like a comet until he was blacklisted in the Joe McCarthy Red Menace era. Zero named no names and rebuffed the inquisitors. He retired to his studio in the wholesale flower district of Manhattan and painted. He was quite a good painter. He outlasted McCarthy and triumphed in film with “The Producers,” and on Broadway with “Fiddler on the Roof,” and many other plays.
HG remembers waiting before the smoked fish counter at Zabar’s, the renowned food emporium on the Upper West Side. Zero was there and he and HG chatted and expressed mutual admiration for Zabar’s Russian pumpernickel bread. HG told Zero pumpernickel and chicken fat had been his favorite after school snack. Commented Zero: “Pumpernickel and chicken fat killed more Jews than Hitler.”
In the Bronx of HG’s youth, Jewish delicatessens often had a bowl of salami chunks on the counter with a sign: “A Nickel A Shtickel.” The literal Yiddish translation of “shtick” is: “a piece.” You got it. “Shtickel” is the diminutive i.e. “a little piece.” Hungry customers could nibble “ah shtickel” while their pastrami and corned beef orders were being sliced.
All of this has made HG muse on Yiddish show biz terms. “Shtick”, of course, means a comic routine or a performer’s riff of some type. The term has been broadened to include all sorts of political and sales approaches.
“Schmaltz” is chicken fat. It is also the term for sentimental, over-dramatic emoting. “Schmaltzy” music or “schmaltzy” acting, therefore is that which is solely intended to pluck the heart strings (or clog those heart strings as shmaltz tends to do).
A performer of talent who lacks the ability to emotionally move an audience is known as a “lox.” A curious designation, since “lox” is the salty, highly flavored cut of smoked salmon favored by folk with hearty tastes. In performing terms, the opposite of a “lox” is a “shtarker” — a performer who uses every means at his (or her) disposal to excite or grab an audience (by the “kishkas” as they might say). Al Jolson, Bobby Darin, Liza Minelli, Zero Mostel, Bette Midler, Billy Daniels, Louis Armstrong—all “shtarkers”. The word literally means a tough, strong guy. In the Europe of yesteryear, when Jew haters attacked scholars, merchants, etc., “shtarkers” were summoned — Jewish guys who worked with their hands and who did not back down from a fight.
Amazing to think that many of these Yiddishisms have made the leap from the old, Odessa ghettos to the Lower East Side Vaudville circuit to finally entering our shared American vernacular in such a permanent way that a Presidential speech could be described in a major Newspaper as “schmaltzy.” Certainly a development that the great Boris Thomashefsky couldn’t have foreseen!
Outside of the cuisine of Exquisite Maiko. HG’s daughter-in-law, HG’s favorite Japanese dining experience is “izakaya.” Izakaya restaurants are noisy, informal and joyous. They serve a large and eclectic variety of small plates and focus on the consumption of beer, shochu and sake.
Happily, Shibumi Ramenya in downtown Santa Fe has introduced Izakaya. Thursday night is Izakaya night at the little bistro. HG and BSK will be there. Here were some of the items on last Thursday’s izakaya menu: Cod and potato croquettes; barbeque pork rib with grilled quail egg; grilled squid; yakitori chicken; meat balls with corn in spicy yamajirushi; spinach and napa cabbage ohitashi. And more. Much more. A mug of beer or some nice, chilled sake should go nicely with this cuisine.
Daughter Lesley R. alerted Hungry Gerald and SJ to an error involving spaghetti with sardine sauce. In a recent post, HG commented on Sicilian sardine sauce, calling it “pasta al sardo.”
Corrected LR: “Pasta al sardo” means pasta cloaked in a sauce rendered from a gentleman of Sardinian descent. “Pasta con el sarde” is a more appetizing concoction involving sardines.
The wonders do not cease. Last night Exquisite Maiko prepared Japanese summer rolls. HG tried to deconstruct but failed. Essentially, these resembled the traditional Vietnamese rice paper rolls. However, EM’s version enclosed a super-thin egg crepe, soba (rather than rice) noodles, slivers of cucumber and scallion. The rolls were dipped in mentsuyu. Bliss. This was followed by chunks of swordfish cooked by EM’s saute-braise-steam technique. The result was, once more, succulent, juicy fish that tasted as if it emerged from the sea only moments before. EM made a sauce of blender pureed onions, sesame oil and a hint of garlic. Simple. Perfect. The fish dish was served on a bed of fresh greens.
Please note: Outside of the one egg used for the crepes there was neither meat nor fowl used in this meal and only a tiny bit of grapeseed and sesame oil. Yet, the tastes were lush and deeply satisfying. Does this mean farewell to steak for HG and BSK?
SJ is back in Brooklyn tending to biz but daughter-in-law Exquisite Maiko and grandson Inimitable Haru remain in New Mexico for a few more days. This means pure Maiko Magic in the kitchen. HG and BSK were dazzled last night by a halibut, salad and Soba noodle dinner that exemplified the Maiko approach: Simplicity. Purity. Taste. Visual beauty.
HG watched the preparation carefully but might have missed some steps or ingredients. First, Maiko sliced cucumber paper thin, washed and dried baby arugula and some other field greens; sliced garlic very thinly. Halibut was cut into slightly larger than bite size pieces. Garlic and seaweed went into a sizzling pan. The garlic and seaweed quickly crisped and were placed on a paper towel to drain. The garlic was perfectly crisp and brown with none of the bitterness that burning can cause — its a cooking trick HG has never mastered. Then came the real magic part. Heat under the pan was raised to moderate. The fish went into the pan with some white wine and a bit of sesame oil. The pan was covered and the fish was alternately seared by the heat and steamed to perfection.
Maiko arranged a platter. An enticing circle of cucumber and a mound of salad greens as the base for the fish. Acting upon some clock in her head, Maiko removed the fish from the range, placed the pieces on the base of greens, sprinkled all with pan juices and topped it with the crisp garlic and seaweed mixture. There was room temperature Soba on the table, enriched by Mentsuyu (a broth of sorts) and thin strips of nori (the dried seaweed that wraps sushi rolls and hand rolls). Wasabi was at hand. HG and BSK were startled by the halibut. Not a favorite fish, considered tasteless. But, this was halibut full of juice and flavor. The garlic chips didn’t mask the taste but just added a crisp counterpoint to the lush halibut. There will be more fish tonight. We are grateful to the Shinto gods, Japanese culture and Maiko’s wizardry.
Last night SJ (visiting at HG and BSK’s Santa Fe home with his family) produced a large bowl of spaghetti with sardine sauce. It was one of the very best pasta dishes in HG’s memory. It deviated from the traditional Sicilian Spaghetti con el Sarde but retained that magic island’s ambiance (hopefully, SJ will share his recipe in a forthcoming post).
In any case, it made HG make a mental revisit to Sicily. It is the isle of the most superb ruins of Grecian temples, air fragrant with herbs, sea and mountain vistas and a history of violence, foreign occupation, blood and vengeance. It has been the subject of HG’s favorite novel, “The Leopard,” by Lampedusa and HG’s two favorite films, “The Godfather–Part One and Part Two.” It is an island that has been glorified, romanticized, vulgarized; however, HG’s knowledge of Italy and Sicily is as thin as capeliini. For real insight into the historical and social realities of Sicily, HG will always turn to his intellectually gifted son-in-law, Profesore/Dottore M. who grew up in Siracusa.
Profesore / Dottore M. was also HG and BSK’s incomparable guide to Sicily and to the wonders of the local cuisine. In Palermo, HG tasted a variety of little fried yummies (including spleen) that sing in HG’s mind. There was also pasta with a sea urchin sauce. In Siracusa there were fried cuttlefish. In a small town, HG had the definitive Pasta a la Norma (eggplant sauce) and, of course, there was swordfish and tuna cooked in a variety of ways. And, not to be forgotten, the cornucopia of Sicilian sweets and baked goods. In the terrace restaurant of a hotel in Taormina (certainly the town with the loveliest sea views in the world) HG and BSK enjoyed spaghetti with sardine sauce (enhanced with raisins and pignolias evoking Sicily’s occupation by Arabs many centuries ago). Awfully good. But, HG must be honest (nepotism being not to blame). SJ’s was better.
(Flattery gets one everywhere, says SJ, and so the recipe is divulged. Gather together 1 medium red onion, 4 to 5 cloves of garlic, red pepper flakes, 5 nice plum tomatoes, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth, a nice handful of Italian parsley, 2 tablespoons capers, 2 anchovy fillets, a can of (preferably) Portuguese Sardines packed in Olive oil and of course of package of Spaghetti.
Fill a big pasta pot with heavily salted cold water and set to boil. Mince the garlic and red onion and saute in olive oil. Once these soften a bit add some red pepper flakes (to taste) and chop up your anchovies and add them to the pan. Really cook this mixture down so that the onions and garlic carmalize a bit and the anchovies dissolve. Then chop up your plum tomatoes and add them to the pan alongside the tomato paste. Stir everything together and add the chicken broth (if mixture seems too thick add some more broth). Raise heat to a lazy simmer and add the capers and sardines. Add salt and pepper to taste and let simmer for fifteen minutes. Hopefully your pasta water has reached a boil at this point so add your pasta. Cook your pasta until it is a touch underdone (that is a touch before optimal AL DENTE!) and add it to your sauce alongside about 1/2 to a full cup of your pasta water. Raise the heat and keep stirring until your pasta has absorbed some sauce and taste for doneness. When ready add the chopped parsley and serve!)
Eggplant Parmigiana is a bad dish. HG never enjoyed it. Basically, a piece of oil soaked fried eggplant, rubbery mozzarella and insipid tomato sauce. What’s to like? Same goes for Veal Parm. Good way to destroy delicate, tasty meat. HG opts for classic Wiener Schnitzel. HG never liked Minestrone. Why have this meaningless vegetable soup when you can splurge on Pasta e Fagioli (the beloved “Pastafazool” of Fiorello H. LaGuardia, New York’s best Mayor) ? Fritto Misto, the Italian melange of fried fish and shellfish pales in comparison to my daughter-in-law Maiko’s Tempura. Maiko’s Tempura is as exquisite as she is. Handling chopsticks with maestro deftness, Maiko produces pieces of shrimp, sole, halibut and scallops of ineffable lightness without a trace of oil. Just crispness. Fresh sea tastes. Eat her sea nuggets fast or they’ll float off the plate. Pass that chilled sake, please. Uh oh…Is HG getting in trouble with the Italian Anti-Defamation League?.